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Transforming Society

Securing Rights

Restoring Dignity

Tackle racism with a rights-based approach

15 November 2019

To address the systemic issues of racial discrimination, broad social and economic transformation is required in SA

The dust has settled on the 2019 national elections, and, while politics con-tinues, life goes on much as it always has for the majority of people in South Africa. Poverty and inequality remain stag-geringly high and the face of poverty remains black.
In March, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation launched its antiracism app at the South African Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Day celebration, which allows people to report incidents of racism using the app through various platforms, including their cellphones.
Although the value of such an app cannot be overstated in dealing with individual cases of racism and dis-crimination, South Africa has failed to address the systemic causes of poverty and inequality, which occur along fault lines including race, gender and disability, and that ulti-mately cause or exacerbate racism.

A poverty trends report released by Statistics South Africa in 2017 indicated that although poverty decreased between 2006 and 2011 in South Africa, it had increased again by 2015. About 40% of South Africans live below the lower-bound poverty line of R647 a month, as do just less than half of all black Africans. By race and gender, 45% of black African males live below this poverty line, while the same is true for a staggering 49% of all black African women.

While battling widespread poverty, South Africa also remains the most unequal country in the world. White-headed households earn about four times the income of black-headed households and the wealthiest 10% of the population earns about seven times more than the bottom 40%. The poorer households that lack access to adequate basic services are most often black African homes. Although healthcare and basic edu-cation are accessible, the quality thereof is generally inferior.

It is abundantly clear that socio-economic status and race intersect squarely in our society. In 2017, a survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, found that more than half of all respond-ents occasionally or frequently expe-rienced racism. Importantly, since the inception of the institute’s survey in 2003, income inequality — fol-lowed by race — has consistently been revealed as the most significant dividing feature in contemporary South Africa.

South Africa has various laws, policies and programmes in place to address poverty and inequal-ity, including the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act and the Employment Equity Act. However, these initiatives are often frag-mented and cannot sufficiently address the structural issues that perpetuate extreme poverty and inequality.
It is also important to remember that poverty is not just about wealth and ownership. It is often about a lack of privilege and franchise, which prevents people from confronting discrimination and other rights vio-lations from a place of power. Studies by the World Bank have found that empowerment is not helpful only for governance and growth — it intrinsi-cally improves people’s lives.

At a domestic level there is much we can do to address such issues. Viewing race in South Africa as merely an issue of skin colour is akin to viewing poverty in just monetary terms. There are broad systemic challenges relating to race and rac-ism that not only create and main-tain racial divisions in South Africa, but also ensure that certain societal groups remain impoverished and disenfranchised. We can interrogate the links between race and pov-erty and inequality and their effects on the realisation of other human rights. And we can recognise the systems that entrench inequality and poverty for particular groups and apply programmes to dismantle those discriminatory systems both in the short and long term.


To address the systemic issues of race, broad social and economic transforma-tion is required. There is a clear need for drastic redistribu-tive policies. We need targeted pro-grammes or exit strategies for peo-ple receiving social grants to ensure that our grant system remains sus-tainable and that the inherent dig-nity of people is restored. Provisions of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, which deal with the obligation on the state and all people to pro-mote equality, still require com-mencement by proclamation.

At present, legislation that treats all South Africans equally can, and often does, have the effect of further entrenching poverty and inequal-ity. As the Constitutional Court has stated, “[A]lthough the long-term goal of our constitutional order is equal treatment, insisting upon equal treatment in established inequality may well result in the entrenchment of that inequality.”  

A basic income grant for people aged 18 to 59 is required to assist those who are helpless and impover-ished in the face of high and rising unemployment. It is also important to educate communities and pro-mote community-based monitoring. This will assist the state in fulfill-ing its mandate and will allow for the accountability of public depart-ments and private bodies that fail to meet specified human rights obli-gations. Greater awareness around the pro-poor position of the state is needed, to banish rhetoric around the “useless welfare state” or “social-ist state” by emphasising the ben-efits to all South Africans of a more equal society. All policies and pro-grammes must deliberately target the poor.

Of late, terms such as “power” and “rights” are bandied around as popular catchphrases in the halls of international and national agencies and departments. However, these notions are not always apparent in state policy. Although retribution for individual cases of racism is essential in a country haunted by a bloody, rights-less past, dealing with such cases will not solve the nation-wide problems confronting black Africans, as well as the minority coloured community, who are faced with staggering levels of poverty and inequality.
Without targeted, socioeconomic transformation, the inherent dignity of people will remain unrealised and their ability to speak against socioeconomic and equality viola-tions will remain mere rhetoric.

Yuri Ramkissoon is a senior researcher on economic and social rights at the South African Human Rights Commission and Shanelle van der Berg is a senior researcher  on equality at the commission.

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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